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Squirrel in the garage

Guest post on People and Chairs: The Squirrel in the Garage

Whether you’re brand new to improv or you’ve been performing for years, I want to remind you all of the Squirrel in the Garage: the thing that will awaken you to your imaginative side, or the reason you started improv in the first place.

The Squirrel is your sweet, very easily frightened creative self; the one that may not have come out since you were a child. Open, free, innocent, visceral, uninhibited. It is the beautiful creative soul that many people don’t know they have inside of them! (Yes, I believe we ALL have this.)

The Garage is your mind, and the garage door for most people is slammed shut most of the time. The door makes you feel safe, it protects you from humiliation, ridicule, and primarily, judgement. But we know that squirrels shouldn’t live in garages, they should be free, running up trees, across power lines, out in the world.

…Veteran improvisers still have that damn door slam shut and scare that squirrel back into the garage, sometimes for weeks. The difference is it happens much less than it used to. And there are times when the door is left wide open and that squirrel can come out and play, and to me, that is the sweet spot of improvisation.

 

There are sooooo many things I love about this article. Go read the whole thing.

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Arrogance vs. self-loathing

As basically every post on this blog can verify, I have issues with self confidence. But I’ve got an ego, too, and feeding that ego feels really good— that’s the whole reason comedians go for laughs, right?

When I’m not filled with self-loathing, when I start thinking, Hey, I might actually be competent at this, or God forbid, Maybe I’m even GOOD at this, I’ll often catch myself and put on the brakes: Whoa there Robin, your last practice was probably unskilled as anything, but you were in an egotistical headspace, so it only felt good. You still aren’t good. You can only improve by addressing your flaws. So I’ll start focusing on all the mistakes I make, and I’ll realize I can’t do ANYTHING right, and I’ll crash right back down to self-loathing.

Self-loathing is an unwanted state of mind, because it makes me question every move I make, which leads to bad improv, which leads to hating myself for being terrible at improv. (Also because self-loathing is generally unpleasant and unproductive in life— let’s not forget there are several reasons why self-loathing is not ideal.) But I don’t want to be pompous and overconfident either.

I’m on an egotistical upswing right now, and I’m trying to fight my natural tendency to seek humility and find a happy balance.

To quote an episode of the Mental Illness Happy Hour podcast:

[People always say to me, ‘Self deprecation/ low self esteem] is going to keep me humble.’

And I always say to them, ‘Humble? Not your problem. You don’t have a problem being too arrogant.’ …I will say to them, you know, as a therapist, I’ll say, ‘If I hear you sounding too arrogant, I promise you, I will tell you to bring it down a notch. Not my biggest fear when I think of you, being an asshole-dick-arrogant-schmuck. Not what I worry about.

Mental Illness Happy Hour, Episode 165: Mini Episode: Low Self-Esteem with therapist Dr. Guy Winch, segment starting around 22:16

 

So: go ahead and overshoot the confidence thing for a while. I give you permission, Self.

Vossprov – Bill Arnett: The Experience Graph

http://vossprov.tumblr.com/post/69006511917/bill-arnett-the-experience-graph

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You may not feel like your scenes are getting better but your poor work is slipping away. That plateau you’re on that frustrates you after class is actually a slope. And while the climb may feel like inches a day, the ground is rising to meet you by several feet a day.

To put it another way: your bad scenes improve sooner than your good scenes do. Becoming a better improviser means tightening the gap between your best and worst work & becoming more consistent, which natually happens over time (years), mostly by doing less godawful work. Chill out and keep on truckin’.

Why perform?

I’ve read some examples of actors/comedians with performance anxiety issues. And I’m like, Okay, if they can do it, maybe I can too. But then I come to the stumbling block of Wait, if they can avoid these terrible feelings by NOT PERFORMING… why do they perform anyway?

From anxietycoach.com:

…There are people with a passion for creative expression. In this group we find performing artists, musicians, singers, actors, comedians, professional speakers and athletes. None of them are immune to performance anxiety. If you belong to this group and develop stage fright, you face a dilemma which cannot be avoided. Your spirit urges you to seek out the audience, even as your body warns you to stand back, and you must choose.

Not the best-written piece in the history of the internet, but it’s something.

Does my “spirit urge [me] to seek out [an] audience?” I don’t think so, not in general. (Or I learned to resist that urge years ago.) Case in point, hardly anyone reads this blog (or my Twitter), because I don’t publicize it (or my Twitter), in part because I don’t feel like creative expression needs a spotlight and flashing marquee to do its job. I’ve got some old beliefs that seeking attention for your expressions cheapens the expressions somehow, like the high schooler who joins the chess club not because she gives a damn about chess, but because it’ll look good on her college application.

So I’m back to the original question: if you have performance anxiety, why would you pursue the stage?

Do you crave the positive attention of an audience, but you’re terrified of negative attention?

Is it that terror of bombing that fills you with adrenaline and makes you yearn to do it again?

Do you have a “passion for creative expression,” and the creativity simply must be expressed publicly on a stage, and you are powerless to resist?

Why do performers perform? 

I feel like my failure to understand this is a big red flag telling me I shouldn’t perform. I dunno. I have a lot of thoughts right now, and I’m just jotting some of them down.

Jimmy Carrane – A Bad Day Doesn’t Have to Mean Bad Improv

http://jimmycarrane.com/bad-day-doesnt-mean-bad-improv/

Trying to answer the problem of “well I’m in a shitty mood. Nothing is funny. I’m not funny. How the fuck do I get through this?”

 

Improvisers think they need be in a certain “positive” mood to do improv, and if they are not, they either don’t bother to show up to class or they ignore their feelings and paint a big latex smile on their faces and muscle through with that fake energy of a birthday party clown. Then when they have a bad improv class or a bad show, they end up beating themselves up or blaming it on their bad day.

What if we looked at those so-called negative emotions as a gift? And instead of trying to push them away, we were brave enough to acknowledge them by saying them out loud to a friend, the class or the group?

 


…Charlie McCrackin of The Reckoning… said if you are feeling sad or angry you might want to use them in character. Charlie e-mailed me later: “The only things I can add to my thoughts on emotions is that it’s easier to make use of the strong emotions already present in you than to try to build strong emotions from out of nowhere. Plus denying your actual emotions diminishes your ability to play truthfully.”

 

…just because I have a bad day does not mean I have to do bad improv at night. Instead, I can use those emotions to inspire my choices and deepen my connections with my partners to make me an even better improviser.

Successful actors freeze, too

http://www.backstage.com/news/study-shows-stage-fright-is-common-among-working-actors/

(From 2011: Study Shows Stage Fright is Common Among Working Actors)

84 percent [of 136 successful professional actors surveyed] reported experiencing stage fright at least once in their careers. [Goodman] described the condition as freezing or choking and said it is usually represented by a performance’s sudden collapse, rather than a gradual decline. Anxiety is particularly debilitating to actors, because fear of the future occurs in the same part of the brain where imagination lives, Goodman explained. He likened it to an overloaded computer: It will freeze if it has too many programs open while trying to process something complicated. “Imagination,” he said, “is a limited space.”

 

“All of a sudden I really got stage fright,” [Bailit] said. “I couldn’t figure it out, and I remember looking out, and everyone had a stunned look.” She almost walked off the stage, a move that would have haunted her career, she said. One thing kept her onstage. “I was frozen,” she said.

More-positive thoughts quickly took hold, she said, and she remembered her training: Concentrate on what you’re saying; get in the moment; connect with someone.

 

Experience and success are no guard against [stage fright]. Actors such as Meryl Streep, Ian Holm, and Barbra Streisand also suffered from it after they had established their careers.

 

(I froze in class this past week. Upside: I didn’t break the fourth wall like I usually do. Downside: I froze, what the FUCK, I should be past this by now, why am I not. Other downside: it was our first level 3 class, and I’m ALSO obsessing that my classmates all judged me. Great first impression, right?

So instead of wallowing in self-loathing, I’m trying to figure out: what went wrong? How can I prevent this from happening in the future? Can I prevent it from happening in the future? If I can’t, how can I manage the symptoms? If I can’t, is it a total waste of time to pursue a stage-based hobby?)